Success, the Alchemy of Sadhana, and Guru Yoga

October 26, 2022

Shambhavi riffs on success in spiritual practice, the subtle alchemy between teacher and student, and the integrated practice of Guru Yoga. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

We're living in a time and in a place, in a culture where a certain way of relating to external successes is basically the air that we breathe, the milk that we drink from our mother's breast, and what we hear everywhere.

I mean, we just have it drilled into us from practically birth that we have to be successful in certain ways and we have to compete and we have to keep getting better and keep getting more. So this is basically the sickness of our culture.

And if you just look at nature, nature doesn't work like that. Nature runs in cycles. Nature doesn't run in just more and more and more and move. Better, better, better, better.

Stuff grows and it dies. Then more stuff grows and sometimes there's disasters and stuff gets wiped out and then it comes back differently. And there's different periods of time when things go one way or another.

So this is our human life. And the most basic piece of advice that I can give you is to change your definition of success.

Think about what is it that you're now trying to piece together because you feel wobbly and what does that say about what you think success is versus a more natural and holistic and realistic practical idea of success, which is to successfully adapt.

So life—this is impermanence—you may have heard that from somewhere else, and everything comes and goes here. And what do we do when things are coming and going?

It's like waves that come out of the ocean. They build for a while, they crest, and then, whoop, they just crash. And then they roll onto the shore and then they get swept back.

And so what do we do with the waves? You know if we were out in the ocean and our idea was, okay, the wave is going to go up and I'm just going to stay at the top of the wave. I'm not even going to admit that the wave is going to go away. [laughs]

And then we're up there. We're, like, trying to stay up there, but the wave is crumbling underneath our feet and we're going, oh my God, I'm such a failure [laughs] you know, because the wave went away.

So what do we do when we're out there that's a more successful strategy than trying to stay at the top of a disappearing crest? The strategy is surfing, right?

The strategy is paying attention to what's happening and surfing those changing circumstances and having some fun, right? Surfing is fun and it's graceful and kind of dance-like and improvisational.

So this is the model of success that I am encouraging people to take to heart, to adopt. And it's based on realism. It's not based on a belief, right?

This notion that we can continually improve and continually get more and if we don't we're failures—that is a belief. That's like a religious system, right?

Compared to that, this is completely not religious. This is you know, based on nature. It's based on how things actually are.

So remember that you want to learn how to gracefully and skillfully adapt. And sometimes that means things are not building and growing and increasing. Sometimes it means that the times are diminishing or the times are bringing illness or the times are bringing some other thing, difficulties.

And so how can I look at those things realistically and figure out the best strategy for surfing that moment? This is success according to these kinds of traditions and this is out of step with the culture that we live in.

So it's not like in here there's support and out there there's something else going on. In here is a reflection of nature. It's a reflection of how the world is, how nature is.

And out there [laughs], if you want to put it that way, is a belief system or a system of concepts that doesn't match with how things actually are. And it's very, very powerful right at this moment.

But it won't last forever because nature, right? Because nature.

And we can see that already the big capitalist dream is completely showing it's horrible, rotten, underbelly and is collapsing. So, you know, good luck with all that concept of constant improvement.

There's really no out there and in here. We're just trying to go along with how things are, to recognize how things really are and go along with them and have some fun as we do that.

And we're basically trying to break down boundaries between in here and out there. Not in the sense of trying to make everyone agree with what we're doing here, but in the sense of feeling more connected to life, feeling more integrated.

And you may feel for a while that, oh my God, you know, if you stick around here and decide to do this practice with us, you may start to feel the difference in your outlook and how you deal with things and how you respond to things from how you used to. And that can create some feelings of division or can even create conflict.

But the end result is going to be that you feel more intimate with life, not more separate. That's the whole point of the practice, total intimacy with life.

And at some point you're not going to be as bothered by differences in how you are coming to deal with life and how people that you had in your life, like family and friends and stuff are doing that.

You go through a period where it is troubling, I think, for a lot of people. But eventually you're just going to have a feeling of kindness for everyone including those people who maybe don't like what you're doing.

So even though it might feel like they're sort of in here and out there, you'll come to realize that that's not at all the view of this tradition or anything I'm into.

I'm into having a supportive container for people to do practice. We call that the crucible, like a place where people know, hey, if I want to do practice I can come here.

But we're trying to create a place where people can do more traditional spiritual practice and not be bothered by a lot of internal politics and brouhaha and machinations and abuse and all that kind of stuff.

But aside from that, you know creating that kind of container, the openness and connection and intimacy is really what this is about.

This kind of community and this kind of teacher is just training wheels. This is your little practice area or playground for learning how to relax and connect more with everyone, but by no means is this the end of the line. That is not what I want and not how this is set up.

Is it okay when I'm showing my emotions? Like, because I felt like I shouldn't have done thumbs down, and no! Don’t stop morning worship!


I was not thinking of you before I was thinking of myself.

Yeah, that's great that you noticed that because one of the reasons I'm here is so you can start thinking about other people more than yourself.

It's not that you're doing this to me, it's that you notice, oh, is a person. She might have some feelings or she might have her circumstance different from my circumstance.

This is the kind of thing we have to start noticing about everyone, not just about our teacher, but you know it can start with the teacher. The teacher's kind of like training ground, right, for starting to notice.

So that whole alchemy of everything that happened where you went mmhhgg!—and somebody had a conversation with you and then you’ve thought about it and you thought about it a lot because this is the second time you brought it up in satsang so you must have been really thinking about it, and now you're asking questions about it.

This is all part of the alchemy of what happens. This is sadhana, right? This is integrated practice, it’s what's happening. So this is all good.

You know, saying what we want is also dangerous. If we express our desire, then that's making ourselves more vulnerable.

It's easier to just sit back and wait for something to happen and not stick our feet out, right? Because this is the time that we live in where everyone is just so, so, so fragile and afraid to say what they want.

But then you have to learn how to say that. That is a huge part of the way that students and teachers work together.

In fact, if you read stories of students and teachers, the game is really the student keeps asking and the teacher keeps saying no, until the student has to practically beg for what they want and go through all sorts of trials to show that they have this really strong desire.

But this doesn't happen these days, or very, very rarely does anyone understand this. A student comes to me and expresses something they want or expresses a desire and I say no or I don't respond to them right away or I do any of the usual things that teachers would do in these traditions.

Then the student sets up an office hours, and says I felt really hurt when you… you know, no! That’s not what’s happening. [laughs]

I don't like the tone of voice you talked to me in and you didn't answer me when I said this that and the other. You know, this is the times that we live in.

I have to be much different than teachers that I had were with me even just so that you guys know that there's anything happening or there's anything you could have more than what you have now between you and me. So it's a whole different thing.

I've been listening to your podcast for a while and sometimes I listen to them and I’m just like, man, it must have been really hard to hear that as a student! You know, at what point do you recognize that it's for the person's benefit to tell them something really difficult?

So I'm very sensation texture oriented, and there's a texture to a relationship, and there's that texture also involves the texture of time and timing. And as I've gotten older and done more practice and worked with students more, I get better at timing. [laughs]

But the underlying principle is that even if something is hard to hear, a teacher who is adept only says what they have permission to say. And that permission can be explicit or it can be tacit, you know, it can be an understood thing, it can be a thing of the moment. There's just infinite variations.

I mean, I might say, do you mind if I give you some feedback? The person knows me and they know what they're in for if they say yes. [laughter] And if they say yes, then I can go forth, right?

But even sometimes students come and say, I want you to be my teacher. You didn't say anything […] and I know it's completely not true.

Like, so it's not just about a declaration. There's a lot of subtlety to that circumstance, and there continues to be a lot of subtlety as students and teachers work together over time.

And that's actually one of the things I like most about it, you know, that it requires this sort of full body energy and mind reading of a situation and I love to be in that circumstance.

So what you're hearing is, you know if it strikes you as very difficult, is probably that's your sensorium, you know, that's receiving that in a certain way.

And my gentleness with you is a combination of a lot of different things, one of which is you're very, very new. We've never met in person. You have a delicate constitution [laughs] and you know, whatever—just a feeling, right?

If you stuck around for a long time and became a committed student and we got to know each other better and I felt like I had your permission you would probably get some fiery darts from me now and then.

You know my understanding of what—I want to use a fancy word—milieu I'm in, you know what context I'm in in this particular time and place and what condition people are in has changed over time too.

I've always had very fiery teachers and not just fiery teachers in person, but also in dreams.

I mean, I've been yelled at so many times by teachers and just been given the most fierce forms of teachings and that was okay with me. So I was much fiercer when I first started teaching because I was teaching the way that I liked to be taught, right? I’ve vastly, vastly moderated how I teach, you know, now based on more understanding of how people are.

The more realized we become, the more sweet and devotional we become.

So even the most fiery tigers, I think, you know people who start off as practitioners in their youth, very, very fiery, which certainly was my circumstance—I mean I have a lot of pitta in my constitution—we just get squishier and softer over time, I think it’s inevitable. [laughs]

So there's no paradigm. It's really feeling in the moment, feeling how things are with the student and me, and some students are never going to see that side of me.

I had an interesting encounter, which a lot of you have heard me talk about, because Anandamayi Ma, even though I never met her in person, she's always been extremely fierce with me. You know when she's come in dreams or something like that, she's been very fierce with me.

And there was a fellow who was Ma’s private secretary for three years before she died who lived in Almora, he had been a sannyasin, he ran the Almora ashram—and then he had a niece or something who lived in Beaverton, which is just south of Portland.

And I was living in Portland, Oregon, and somebody got in touch me and said, oh, the swami from Ma’s sanga in India is in Beaverton, he's holding satsang, you should go see him.

So I found out when to go, but I thought there was going to be, like kirtan and a whole group of people there. But when I arrived, it was just him and me, and he was expecting me to like have these profound questions that I wanted to ask “the master.”

I could tell he was kind of ornery and he was just a little perplexed what I was doing there, so I just made up some questions on the spot just to sort of satisfy him. And I asked him if Ma was ever fierce with him, and he went, oh, no, no. She was just like a loving mother. Always just like a loving mother.

So teachers are how they are with the different students because of whatever condition that student is in and the times and the state of the relationship and all kinds of other factors. This fellow felt that he had never experienced Ma’s fierceness.

There was a—the first person I ever met in the Indian sanga was this young Bengali man whose parents had been Ma devotees and he had grown up around Ma.

And he was in graduate school studying physics and he decided to take, like, a gap year or something. And he was doing full time seva at the Varanasi ashram teaching math to the kanyas—they have a girl’s school there. And then he was also kind of manning the front office.

So the very first time I went to the Ashram in Varanasi I walked in and he was the first person who greeted me. He was in the little office that they had there.

He said to me he thought Westerners had it much easier and maybe had a better relationship with Ma than the people who knew her when she was alive. And I asked him why he was saying that, because I couldn't possibly imagine how that could be. And he said, well, they didn't have to deal with her personality. [laughs]

He felt that if you didn't have to deal with her personality you were having a more pure, holy relationship with her. And this is why Westerners were more lucky. But of course, this is a complete misunderstanding.

The idea of becoming a practitioner and becoming more awake is that you learn how to deal with people better, not that you just deal with only these very holy, cleansed versions of people. So the personality of the teacher is really important, and important that the teacher grates on you now and then because otherwise, how are you going to learn to deal with other people?

I have a question—so can attachment to the form of the teacher and being too emotionally attached to the teacher be your detriment?

Only if you don't do sadhana. [laughs] So everyone has a lot of attachments, and for some time, maybe lifetimes, who knows—it depends on the person—being attached to the teacher or a lineage or a community is all good because at least you're not attached to the other things you used to be attached to.

So you sort of trade attachments for a while, right? You get very attached to your mantra. You’re attach your teacher, et cetera, and all that's fine, right? And all that's fine.

And there can be a lot of emotion involved. Like, people have very different relationships with their teachers. Some of them are very emotional, some of them are not. Some of them have a cooler temperature.

But in any case, the important thing is that you're doing sadhana. You know, whether you have a big emotional attachment or not, that's something that can be worked with.

But if someone is not doing sadhana then it can't be worked with. It just becomes an ordinary emotional thing, right? And there's not much to do about it.

So most people in Jaya Kula are doing seated practice, but also seva is sadhana, right? A lot of people who are in ashrams are doing a lot of seva also as their practice. So it's important to be doing practice, whatever form that takes, along with all the attachments. And then it can be worked with.

But the teacher isn't really here just to have like, ordinary emotional relationships with people. That plays in—obviously everyone has ordinary emotions, including me—but it has to be in the context of our practice together.

How is that attachment linked to guru yoga? Is that the same?

Guru yoga is the practice of recognizing that your essence nature is the same as the teacher’s. So guru yoga—it’s not bhakti—that's a different kind of practice—guru yoga is not throwing yourself weeping at your teacher's feet.

Guru yoga is we do various different kinds of practices so that you can experience essence nature and recognize that it's the same as your teacher‘s. That's the essence of guru yoga.

So, for instance, the very simplest form of guru yoga is just thinking of your teacher. If you have a really great connection to your teacher, and your teacher is someone you have confidence can help you to recognize what's actually going on here and who you really are, then you think of your teacher and your body energy and mind transforms for a moment.

And then you can have the recognition, hey, that was my body energy and mind experiencing that. My teacher's not even here! I just had a thought of my teacher, and now I feel more integrated and relaxed and there's something happening in my heart space and my mind feels different.

And then you can recognize, that's my body, energy, and mind doing that! That's the alchemy of guru yoga. You're discovering in yourself the enlightened essence nature that you experience in your teacher.

That kind of guru yoga that you're describing, where you just think of your teacher and then it changes your state, did that come to you pretty early in your life?

The forms of guru yoga that I learned were much more complicated than that, and I've taught you those too. But the type of guru yoga where you just think of your teacher, that is just something that I noticed happens. That wasn't something I was taught. That's from my own experience.

And I would say that happened to some degree with some other teachers, but not very deeply. But when Ma came into my life, that's when it really was like, okay, I think of Ma and like there's this alchemy happening. That's a, really a sign that there's a real connection there.

For me it can come like, at one point, and then months go by and I don't remain in touch with that so that’s why […]

That used to happen to me early on, too. That's normal. But once having experienced that, you can make a determination to find your way back.

So is it not happening for months because you just forget about it? Or is it not happening for months, but you occasionally try to get into that?

When I used to have these kinds of events early on where suddenly just something would change in my perception and experience due to sadhana or having a teacher or whatever, I would stop and try to like feel that more deeply and work with it, or see if I could remain in that longer, or at least not distract myself from it.

So if I was walking down the street and something like that happened, I would not then go off and do something completely different because I had that planned and then ruin that moment.

You know I would, like, consciously remain in it. And then you eventually, through experience, you learn how to be in it more. But you have to not forget about it for months on end.

And there's a sense of playfulness also, right, and experimentation. Isn't it interesting that you can think of a person and then suddenly something's going on, right?

So that interest—there has to be curiosity there, too. Like, what's this about? How can I play with this? Can I experiment?

So all those things were happening for me. It's not like I just had this huge capacity and all these things just happened to me. I worked. [laughs] I really, like, engaged with these things. And you can do that, too.



Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.